‘Carnaval’ & Pomp – Or spectacle, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary?

Spectacle, Carnival & Pomp

I was reflecting a bit more last night about my post on Lefebvre’s ‘for and against the street’ in relation to the matter of carnival and the controversy around it.  I kept remembering a line from a book I’d read but couldn’t remember all of it or what the book was – fortunately it came to me over breakfast like a kiskadee’s call hits when feeling moldy…

It’s a bit from David Harvey’s interesting ‘Paris, Capital of Modernity‘, from the chapter Consumerism, Spectacle and Leisure, discussing the Belleville Carnaval; here’s the relevant extract:

Spectacle, even that of the city itself, has always been fundamental to urban life, and its political aspects have long played an important role in the construction of legitimacy and social control. There had been no lack of spectacle under the July Monarchy, but much of it escaped social control by the authorities. Sunday excursions took the workers outside the city limits to the bars and dance halls of places like Belleville, culminating in a ribald and riotous evening descent back into the city center.  The fear lurked that spectacle of this sort could all too easily lead to riot and revolution. This was particularly true of the Carnaval in the week preceding Lent during the 1840s, characterised as ‘the last, exuberant fling of pre-industrial theater of excess which cut hard against the nascent ideologies of the metropolitan city.’ The ‘promiscuous mixing and reversals’, the cross-dressing, the temporary loss of class distinctions, threatened the social order. Carnaval ‘too rudely mocked the careful modulations between spectacle and urban menace staked out across the city. In making gestures, looks and appearances both more explicit and more explicitly counterfeit, in mixing them pell-mell as if no ill would come of the brew, it called the bluff of the Boulevard des Italiens, the Chaussee d’Antin’. The authorities and those bourgeois who were not drawn into the frenzy were fearful and horrified.  The macabre carnavelesque way in which the the bodies of those shot down on the Boulevard des Capucines on that February evening of 1848 were paraded around the city as an incitement to revolution drew upon such traditions. This, then, was what the socially controlled spectacles of the Second Empire set out to displace. The aim was to transform active players into passive spectators. The Belleville Carnaval declined during the Second Empire through a mix of displacement, active repression, and administrative shifts (such as the incorporation of Belleville into the city through the annexation of 1860). The troublesome image of ‘the descent from Belleville’ remained, however, and when it was finally resurrected in the late 1860s, it was with the clear intent of ending Empire and making revolution.

But Second Empire spectacle went far beyond imperial pomp. To begin with, it sought directly to celebrate the birth of the modern. This was particularly true of the Universal Expositions. These were, as Benjamin remarks, ‘places of pilgrimage to the fetish Commodity’, occasions on which ‘the phantasmagoria of capitalist culture attained its most radiant unfurling’. But they were also celebrations of modern technologies. In many respects, imperial spectacle dovetailed neatly with commodification and the deepening power of the circulation of capital over daily life. The new boulevards, besides generating employment, facilitated circulation of commodities, money, and people. The expositions drew massive crowds from the provinces and from abroad, stimulating consumer demand. And all those spectacles took skill, labour, commodities, and money to mount. The stimulus to the economy was therefore considerable.

Initial Thoughts

From a Bermudian perspective – and ignoring the wider concepts of ‘spectacle’ – my mind here automatically goes to thoughts of the contrast between Gombey’s (and the more recent introduction of ‘carnival’) and our military parades (and an argument could be made that our majorette troops fall within the wider field of ‘military’ parade, in their uniforms and regimented orchestration).

One embodies elements of the ‘wild’, the ‘unknown’, ‘chaos’ and a departure from social norms – the Gombey’s in particular include the aspects of anonymity and a defiant celebration of the sub-altern African and First Nations heritage of our people – sub-altern in relation to the European aspects of our society which is de facto normative and dominant in terms of cultural expression. The Gombey’s are our original form of the ‘carnival’, augmented now with the introduction of a carnival proper (though divorced from the religious time-table in our case, where Catholicism has never been dominant and unable to support a more traditional carnival system to date).

The other embodies ‘order’, ‘regimentation’, ‘discipline’ (not that the Gombey’s do not require discipline, but it is of another form) and is general a spectacle of pomp, a celebration of power and the State.

Of course in Bermuda the two have somewhat lost their original impulses – although the loss is greater for the Gombey’s and (from it’s inception) carnival.  Our ‘pomp’ is less about a demonstration of power and the State as it is a manufactured production for tourism (as well as simply ‘tradition’). It does, however, retain the role of demonstrating power and the State all the same. The Gombey’s – and now carnival – are less a defiance of power and the State today, and are more a tourist and/or entertainment production, while retaining the element of ‘tradition’.  But it’s more revolutionary potential, it’s defiance, has been neutered for the most part. It’s edge has been lost in accordance with its acceptance – its co-optation – by capital and the State.

‘Cyborg’ Carnivals?

Carnival itself, is, in Bermuda’s case, wholly manufactured.

Whereas our sister islands far to the south have a carnival rooted in the Catholic tradition (like that described by Harvey above), which combined with the same elements of defiance (to slavery, to White supremacy, to power, to the State) of which the Gombey’s originate to create the potentially revolutionary carnival spectacle, we did not have such a tradition. Catholicism has always been dominated here by Anglicanism, and Bermuda has not changed hands between Catholic and Anglican powers (and thus retained ‘Catholic’ traits) – we’ve been Anglican dominated since inception, with dissenters exiled or suppressed.

Bermuda’s carnival is novel, wholly manufactured, by Bermudians who have experienced carnival to our south and yearned for its replication, its reproduction, in the Bermudian context. Our carnival is not organic – it is artificial. And essentially designed from a business plan, for the sake of consumption, of creating an event. This does not mean that it is not possible of becoming a ‘cyborg’, of incorporating and becoming partially organic ‘of the people’ in time – and may already have done so with its inception.

This is not a criticism of our carnival, merely an observation, that our carnival is manufactured, is artificial, can only ever aspire to become a cyborg. It is divorced – at its birth – from the organic revolutionary character of its inspiration, and retains the ‘revolutionary’ aspect more in superficial form than historical connection. Although revolutionary – and organic – potential can accrue to it all the same, over time.

Revo or Contra?

Which brings to question whether any of these spectacles can be seen as revolutionary or counter-revolutionary (and what is meant by these terms anyway)?

For space considerations I’ll continue this as a second post.

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4 thoughts on “‘Carnaval’ & Pomp – Or spectacle, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary?

  1. Pingback: Carnival & Pomp – Revolutionary & Counter-revolutionary? | "catch a fire"

  2. However, by tying this event to National Heroes Weekend, this has the potential for just as much impact as a celebration like Barbados’s Crop Over.

    Replace the harvesting of sugar cane aspect, with the honouring of national heroes and you have something that can be truly (and metaphorically, of course) organic in nature. But it will likely take some persons on the current panel and the BTA to see things from that point of view instead of wholly a tourism-attracting product or a revenue-earner (or even just a feel-good thing).

    No reason at all why this can’t become part of Bermuda’s culture and be a real positive for the island.

  3. Pingback: Some thoughts on Carnival | "catch a fire"

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